History of education is history of community | TheUnion.com
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History of education is history of community

A schoolhouse teacher and her students at Relief Hill pose for a class photograph in 1911.
Neavda County Historical Society |

When immigrants and miners settled in Nevada County in the mid-19th century, they started the county’s first generations, while some brought established families and children into the area with the need for schools.

Those first schools became more than just facilities for education, but cornerstones in the community that served the local populace — and have remained so, from single-room schoolhouses of the gold rush mining camps to the college-level courses offered on campuses today.

Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen said working in education in a county with such a rich history brings the schools and the community together.



“I believe that at one point there were 38 school districts in the county,” Hermansen said. “Our history also has created the small communities that we have throughout our county where people feel connected to their local schools, and often the schools are actually the hubs of the community.”

According to historical text obtained from the Nevada County Historical Society, the first schools established in Nevada County in the early 1850s were private schools funded by contributions from parents interested in giving their children an education. They were often run by local community members.




Sarah Royce, mother of Josiah Royce, a Grass Valley native and world renowned philosopher, conducted one of these schools which were usually held in a home or family setting.

The first private school in Grass Valley was opened in 1852 by Miss Rosa Farrington, also known as Mrs. J.P. Stone. Farrington’s school was operated out of a log cabin on Mill Street, just one block from where the city’s historic downtown now stands.

“They called them the dame schools,” Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Louise Johnson said. “There were women who would just educate kids in their homes. I saw a little filler from way, way back the other day that Miss whoever was available to do school lessons and I thought ‘Oh that’s so cute.’”

Other small private schools would later pop up on Main Street such as Miss Coleman’s private school, and Miss Harvey’s Select School on School Street. Nevada City’s first private school was opened in 1851 by Mrs. Sampson in a building on Broad Street, which housed 20 students. Mrs. C. Hibbard started a school around that same time on Boulder Street, and Miss Olive Litchfield’s School located on Broad Street taught English, modern languages, and music.

“One of the things I find most interesting is that I am always getting the question, ‘Why do we have so many school districts in Nevada County?’ Hermansen said. “As you can see from our history, that is because of the numerous schools that sprung up during the mining days.”

Located on the 400 block of South Church Street in Grass Valley, Mount Saint Mary’s Academy is one of the oldest and the longest standing private schools in the West. The school was originally an orphanage run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy whom served families and orphans in the greater community.

Founded in 1859, Father Thomas Dalton opened the school in its initial location on the northeast corner of Church Street, which would eventually be replaced by a Catholic cemetery. The school had two separate sites, one for girls and one for boys, and while some students were local, there were a good amount of students that were boarders, or orphans brought from diocese outside of the county.

Edee Wood has been principal of Mount Saint Mary’s for seven years and says it is an honor to be part of a school with so much history in the community.

“It continues to have a good reputation, we’re here to service the community and kind of fill a need in our community,” Wood said. “If you were to talk about tradition, we continue the tradition of service to our community, service to our school, our parish, our Grass Valley community, and service to our world. So we really focus on having our activities looking at helping others and being community-minded and I think that goes back to the tradition of the sisters.”

Public schools in the county were erected not much later than the first private ones. According to text from the Nevada County Historical Society, in 1954, the first public school was opened in Nevada City and was partially funded by a banquet that women in the community held for the school’s benefit.

When increased attendance caused that first school to close, in 1859, the lot behind the Washington School was purchased for less than $3,000, and a 28 by 30-foot building was erected.

Grass Valley’s first public school was opened in 1853, and in 1866 the first high school was erected for $5,000 on a 4-acre property located on School Street. Nevada City instituted its first high school in 1862 on the corner of Nevada and Water streets, and was run by J.B. McChesney and his assistant Sarah Pratt.

While the founding dates for the first high schools in the county are argued among different historians, there is written proof that the state legislature authorized a tax levy of one percent for high schools in 1868, and two years later a new high school building was built in Nevada City that cost the city more than $19,500.

Eventually, to form a union between high school students from both Grass Valley and Nevada City, the two schools would merge in the mid-20th century into what is now Nevada Union High School.

“The storied past of Nevada Union is a source of great pride in our community and fosters an incredible amount of community support,” NU Principal Dan Frisella said. “I am very fortunate to be on the receiving end of that support and beyond grateful for the opportunity to be part of the storybook.”

Long-time Pleasant Ridge Union School District board member Joann Rossovich, now retired, said that in the 1980s, families from the Bay Area migrated to South County to get away from the earthquakes. Rossovich said there was an influx of families into the area especially after the 1994 earthquake in Northridge.

“The student population increased, so there was more of a need for a high school in the south part of the county.” Rossovich said.

To accommodate growing enrollment at the time, including high school aged students in southern Nevada County, Bear River High School was established in 1986, and many of the Pleasant Ridge Union elementary and middle school students would attend there as they got older.

Many school districts in Nevada County have come and gone throughout the years. At one point there were close to 40 different districts servicing the area. Currently, there are 10 school districts in western Nevada County, not including independent charter schools, making up more than 40 schools that service students K-12, as well as disabled, alternative and adult education.

“I think people may be worried that their school would lose that local feel and connectedness if it were to join with other schools in the county,” Hermansen said. “Our small school districts operate with great efficiency and creativity. They share resources and services and do everything they can to operate efficiently.”

Rossovich, though, says that although there are things that schools in the county can improve, they make the community what it is.

“It’s not like it used to be, but this is still a great county to raise kids, and the schools are one of the reasons why,” Rossovich said. “Our schools contribute to our community, and they have for many, many years.”

To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email inatividad@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.


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